Culture

‘Realism’ Israeli-style: A kinder, gentler occupation

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CATCH-67
The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War
by Micah Goodman, Translated by Eylon Levy
264 pp. Yale University Press $26

Israeli Jews aren’t communicating. They’re not listening to each other. They’re blaming each other. The problem isn’t “ideological polarization;” ideology has imploded. “Israel’s political discourse is degenerating not because Israelis have moved apart from one another but precisely because they have drawn closer to one another.” The conflict isn’t any longer about “ideas,” it’s about “tribe against tribe,” a battle of “identities.” One tribe, “the left,” having long since abandoned its belief in socialism and more recently seen its vision of “peace” shaken by the Second Intifada, now focuses on the demographic “threat” posed by the 1967 occupation. The other tribe, “the right” “no longer argues that settling the territories will bring redemption” but instead insists “that withdrawing from them will bring disaster.”

The irony? Both “left” and “right” are correct! “The right is correct that a withdrawal from Judea and Samaria would endanger Israel. The left is correct that a continued presence in the territories would endanger Israel.” It’s a “double-bind.” A “catch-22” (or, rather, a “catch-67,” in reference to the territory occupied in the  June ’67 war). “It turns out that everyone is right, and since everyone is right- all are trapped.” Discourse is frozen.

Or so argues Micah Goodman, a researcher at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem (previously best known for his work on Maimonides) and a resident of the Jewish West Bank settlement of Kfar Adumim. (“I would rather not be called a settler,” says Goodman. “it’s where I live, not who I am”).

Goodman’s book, Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War (recently available in an English translation) topped the Israeli nonfiction best seller list for weeks after its original Hebrew publication in March 2017. According to The Times of Israel, it was

read in Israel’s halls of power – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was seen carrying it in the Knesset’s corridors with a bookmark peeking from its pages – and by many top officials involved in administering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. IDF Central Command chief Maj. Gen. Roni Numa bought copies for his top officers.

In June 2017, MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, a member of the Zionist Camp and “an ardent supporter of the two-state solution” joined with right-wing MK Yehuda Glick, an American-born rabbi well-known “for his forceful advocacy of Jews’ right to worship on the Temple Mount,” to invite Goodman to talk about his book in the Knesset, a gesture which moved a writer for The Jewish Review of Books to opine that, “Only as brave and impressive an attempt as Goodman’s to address all the arguments for and against withdrawal in a deep and serious manner, anchoring them in Jewish history and philosophy, could evoke such an unusual and bipartisan response.”

Cover of Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War by Micah Goodman

So, what is this “brave and impressive attempt?” Well, first and foremost, writes Goodman, it’s about “trying to heal a fractured conversation” (a fractured Jewish Israeli conversation) and about paving “a path toward new ideas.” To accomplish this, he believes,  the Israeli “left” must definitively “abandon dreams of a comprehensive peace agreement that will finally end the conflict and provide Israel with internationally recognized borders;” and the Israeli “right” must reconcile itself to “the fact that the drive to settle Judea and Samaria must come to an end.”  Israeli Jews must “painfully [let] go of [their] dreams,” scale down their expectations and simply work “to transform a catastrophic problem into a merely chronic one, one that [Israelis] can learn to live with.” Instead of “managing the conflict” and perpetuating the status quo (a la Netanyahu); and instead of seeking to once-and-for-all resolve issues like final borders, the future of Jerusalem, the plight of the refugees, and the relations between the West Bank and Gaza; the object should simply be to “minimize the occupation” and thereby “restructure” the conflict by “converting it from an existential to a containable” one.

To achieve this “modest” and “reasonable” objective (the book is awash with reminders of the author’s “centrism,” “realism,” “pragmatism” and Zionist empathy for the entire Jewish-Israel political spectrum) Goodman offers a number of specific proposals. The steps he outlines in Catch-67 (and others added after receiving “a lot of new ideas from military officers”) amount to a grab-bag of unilateral Israeli moves intended to ease the burden of Israeli rule over the Palestinians “without endangering the security of Israel at the same time.” Steps include:

  • transferring sections of Area C in the West Bank (but not the Jordan Valley) to the “administrative control” of the Palestinian Authority;
  • constructing  a network of bridges, tunnels and roads by-passing the settlements, not necessarily “to give the PA territorial contiguity but [to create] a sovereign system of transportational contiguity;”
  • ceasing the expansion of settlements “outside the [already existing] large settlement blocs;”
  • easing “restrictions on business and trade,” reducing the number of checkpoints and promoting “more freedom of movement. “
  • transferring to the Palestinian Authority Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, not including “historic Jerusalem – the Temple Mount, City of David, etc;” the rest of Jordanian East Jerusalem; and (one infers) Jewish settlements constructed elsewhere in the unprecedently gargantuan “Jerusalem”  created by Israel in 1967.

Goodman is quick to acknowledge that these initiatives (which would create what he refers to as a  Palestinian “almost state”) stand zero chance of satisfying the Palestinians themselves.  No matter. They should be undertaken, he believes, without a quid pro quo and with little worry about endangering Israeli security (“because the Israel Defense Forces would retain a presence on the ground and the work of the Shin Bet security service would remain unaffected.”) The hope would be to “achieve forty years [in which] Palestinians almost don’t experience occupation and Jews almost don’t experience terrorism,” a condition which would mollify the Palestinians, assuage the ongoing and increasingly acrimonious Jewish debate in Israel.  And – as an added bonus – “contribute to healing the relations between Israelis and many young Jews across the diaspora.”  A win-win all around.

Goodman is interested in actual Palestinians only insofar as they threaten Israeli Jewish security and demographic hegemony and, beyond that, only insofar as their very presence threatens to rend the Jewish body politic and undermine Jewish solidarity. His ‘pragmatic’ unilateralism does not extend to Gaza (about which he is entirely silent); he proposes no amelioration of Israeli policies of administrative detention and collective responsibility: and he has nothing to say about the theft of water, the house demolitions, the ‘price-tag’ attacks or the long-standing discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. Nor, for that matter, does he address (or even acknowledge!) the increasingly incendiary Israeli Jewish racist discourse or the rapid erosion of Israeli civil liberties, including the civil liberties of dissident Israeli Jews.

Either Goodman is unconcerned about these matters or he believes that the measures he recommends will somehow ‘minimize’ their importance.

To my mind, however, the most striking thing about Goodman’s argument is the utterly conventional and largely unexamined set of historical and moral assumptions on which it is founded. A recent interviewer suggested that Goodman is seeking “to create an MRI of the Israeli brain, a map of the historical and philosophical circuits that structure public perceptions and shape current policies.” But the collective brain Goodman is excavating, not to mention his own particular brain, is firmly in thrall to the hoariest Zionist myths and relentlessly exculpatory of Israeli misdeeds.

Two-thirds of the way through Catch-67 Goodman wonders, “Can the Jewish-Palestinian conversation be healed?” The answer he gives is: No.

On the Jewish-Israeli side his reasons are the familiar ones. Israeli Jews are afraid. They fear Palestinian terrorism (to which they’ve been exposed for “at least three generations”). They fear the fact that “Israel is “encircled by enemies” and “surrounded by anti-Semitic forces.” And, most profoundly, they fear because “the history of the Jews is the history of persecution.”

In presenting these “reasons,” Goodman rather consistently blurs the line between what Jewish Israelis believe to be the case and what has been and currently is the actual reality. Is it true, for example,  that Israel is “encircled by enemies?” (Are Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia enemies, let alone ‘anti-Semitic’ ones?) Is the lachrymose version of the Jewish diaspora experience (“the history of the Jews is the history of persecution”) an adequate one?

For Goodman such questions don’t ultimately matter. Buried in one of his footnotes he writes that, “The impression among Jews that Jewish history is a never-ending tale of pogroms and persecution represents a partial reflection of historical truth. But perceptions of the past shape the present more than the past itself does.” While this may be true, it is also true that “perceptions of the past” are not immutable. They can be transformed and replaced by more truthful narratives. Yet Goodman evinces absolutely no interest in encouraging Israeli Jews to rethink their habitual understandings and jettison their shopworn myths.

Even more disturbing than Goodman’s explanation of why Israeli Jews are currently incapable of conducting a “healing conversation” with Palestinians is the manner in which he frames the issue on the Arab side. Palestinians, he suggests, “cannot forgo the right of return without changing the essence of their national identity.” Why? Because they’re suffering from a species of arrested development and are incapable of relinquishing their phantasmagorical memory of an idealized past.  To support this claim Goodman quotes Fouad Ajami (once characterized aptly as an archetypal “Native Informant”). According to Ajami,  “[Palestinian] memory [has] stood in the way of accommodation. An apparition, the Old Palestine [has] rebuked [a] practical peace. Memory [has] sanctified all that had been there before, the loss and the defeat.”

And that’s not the biggest problem. Behind the “apparition” of “the Old Palestine” (which presumably is distinct from the actual Palestine to which 750,000 of its inhabitants were prevented from returning after 1948) lies an even more fundamental and calcified “memory.” The Palestinians’ “sense of humiliation,” writes Goodman, “has a Muslim history.”

The success of Zionism is a painful and living reminder to Muslims of their ongoing humiliation at the hands of Western civilization. . . .  The rise of the West and the decline of Islam have seared a sense of humiliation into the Muslim mind. National resistance to Western imperialism . . . constitutes a refusal . . . to accept the physical presence and cultural influence of anything Western on Muslim lands.  [It] is a struggle whose value is independent of its results; merely to persevere is to refuse to surrender to foreign humiliation. It is a struggle whose importance is in its existence- a struggle for the sake of struggle. . . .

By a not-so-subtle sleight of hand, Goodman thus transforms a nationalist conflict and a battle for human rights into a centuries old ‘clash of civilizations’ in which Palestinians are submerged in a vast agglomeration of embittered, humiliated, and unforgiving “Muslims,” crippled by their inability to relinquish their “memory” of a once-upon-a-time Islamic Golden Age. No wonder there can be no conversation or reconciliation! The conflict is primordial and transhistorical. “Ancient Jewish feelings are colliding with ancient Muslim feelings. . . . The whole of both Jewish and Muslim histories are . . . fated to collide with each other.”

Having thus described the ultimate source of the conflict, it comes as no surprise that Goodman goes on to blithely recycle a veritable hit-parade of half-truths and untruths. To wit:

  • The Palestinians could have had their own independent state in 1937. And again in 1947. And at Camp David in 2000. They were even offered one by Olmert in 2008. Yet each time they perversely refused. Abba Eban was right. Not only have the benighted Palestinians “never miss[ed] an opportunity to miss an opportunity” but they remain just like the “child who, after killing his parents, pleads for mercy as an orphan.”
  • In June 1967, Israel “was willing to return most of the territory captured in the war to the neighboring Arab states.” But the “Arabs first united in rejection of Israel’s peace overtures, and a few years later united again in an embrace of war.”
  • The Lebanon invasion of 1982 “began as a limited campaign to push terrorists away from Israel’s northern borders. . . . But as time went on, the war continued to expand.”
  • The Second Intifada was “the Palestinians’ final response” to Barak’s” generous offer” of 2000.

To distinguish truth from truthiness in each of these crude assertions would require a book in itself. Suffice it to say that Goodman, for all his claim to be looking at the Israeli-Palestinian impasse with new eyes, hasn’t the slightest interest in questioning, let alone critiquing, Israel’s Official Narrative. On the contrary, his entire discourse takes this narrative for granted.

While fealty to conventional understandings is hardly surprising given Goodman’s desire to speak for a putative Israeli “center,” his argument turns particularly odious when it explicitly confronts the “Moral Dilemma” posed by the 1967 occupation. Deceptively, Goodman creates an initial impression that his ethical compass is in fine working order. “Occupation,” he writes, is

a type of dictatorship. . . .The primary problem is not that the occupation begets corruption, but that the occupation is itself corrupt. The essence of the occupation is that one nation deprives another nation of its liberty. . . . The occupation does not lead to a loss of morality- the occupation is itself immoral.

Strong, forthright stuff, right? But wait . . . there’s more. Though occupation is a “type of dictatorship,” the West Bank isn’t in fact “occupied!” Regurgitating the long-standing Israeli position, Goodman avers that, “Judea and Samaria. . . constitute territory that the Jordanians conquered in an act of unjustified aggression [in 1948] and also lost through an act of unjustified aggression [in 1967[ . . .[which was then] compounded by a unilateral act of Arab rejectionism.” Far from being “occupied,” therefore, “[t]he most appropriate definition for these territories is that they are disputed.”

Having again drowned the Palestinians in a sea of undifferentiated “Arabs,” Goodman then promptly resuscitates them. Sort of. The territories aren’t occupied, says Goodman, but the human beings living in them are! “The people in the territories live under occupation, even though the land on which they live is not itself occupied.” Got it?  Because West Bank Palestinians happen to remain earth-bound creatures, living and breathing in actual geographic space, they pose a “problem” that the Israeli government has a “moral obligation” to reckon with. Though Goodman doesn’t say so, of course, it’s hard not to detect a dollop of regret on his part that these all-too-present Palestinian bodies haven’t migrated and joined up with their fellow . . . Arabs? Muslims? . . . elsewhere in the cosmos. But, alas, they haven’t.

And so “pragmatists” like Goodman have no choice but to help Jewish Israelis come to terms with the painful reality. Looking ahead, it is incumbent on them to swallow hard, abandon their noble dreams and unilaterally construct a kinder, gentler, more compassionate occupation. True, Hebron, Bethlehem and Shiloh “are an inseparable part of the Jewish people” and “to cede a part of the Jewish homeland is to cede a part of Jewish identity.” But in order to “heal Israel’s national conversation,” and keep the Villa in the Jungle looking attractive to young diaspora Jews, painful concessions must be made.

Thus speaks the current voice of Israeli “realism.”

Sources

Barak, Ehud. “What the Israeli Right Gets Wrong About Security and the Occupation, According to Ehud Barak.” Haaretz. May 13, 2017.

Goodman, Micah. Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War.

New Haven: Yale University Press. 2018.

_____________. “How Israel Can Shrink the Occupation Without Shrinking its Security.” Haaretz. February 18, 2018.
_____________. “Why Ehud Barak’s ‘Responsible Left’ Argument Won’t Convince

Israelis.’ Haaretz. May 19, 2017.

Gur, Haviv Rettig. “The Peace Process Hasn’t Brought Peace. The Case for Moving

On.” The Times of Israel. June 27, 2017.

Horowitz, Mark. “The Escape Artist.” The Tablet. October 10, 2018.

Kershner, Isabel. “A Best-Selling Israeli Philosopher Examines His Country’s Inner

Conflict.” New York Times. June 9, 2017.

Levy, Gideon. “Ehud Barak’s New Left Isn’t Left At All.’ Haaretz. May 15, 2017.

Shatz, Adam. “The Native Informant.” The Nation. April 28, 2003.

Shilon, Avi. “What if Everyone is Right?” Jewish Review of Books. Fall, 2017.

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Trying to make lemonaid from lemons: does all this mean that people in the Israeli government are slowly, kinda, sorta becoming conscious of the human rights violations inherent in the occupation, and the occupation in its present form isn’t sustainable?

I guess that’s progress of a sort…

I would like to see the ‘dispute’ over territory defined. Is it ‘the Palestinians have no right to be here’ vs. ‘The Palestinians have at least some right to be here’? If it comes down to something like that then a final and undeniable end to settlement expansion – not… Read more »

Like all Zionists, Goodman believes that the religion-based identity of Jewish grants to those who choose to hold it the right: – to a religion-supremacist “Jewish State” in as much as possible of Palestine; and – to do unto others acts of injustice and immorality (a.k.a. “necessary evil”) they would… Read more »

It all sounds very ‘soul of Israel’. The worst thing about violence against Palestinians isn’t the death and destruction, but the impact on Israeli self-image. “Lebanon invasion of 1982 “began as a limited campaign to push terrorists away from Israel’s northern borders. . . . But as time went on,… Read more »